Thursday, September 17, 2015

'Sons of Liberty' and Representations of Race in Historical Fiction

Has anyone else noticed that when it comes to historical fiction set in America, there are a few tropes that seem to be stuck in our heads? I mean, it feels like every author writing historical fic of the Americas has about three ideas that must be held to upon all costs.

First, the main character must casually run into/know already/work for one of the Founding Fathers or a similarly important American President or hero. See this at work in such wonderful works of fiction as Sleepy Hollow, where British nobody Ichabod Crane ends up hobnobbing with George Washington, Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and pretty much any other Revolutionary hero you can think of enough to name.

Second, if there are any black people whatsoever in your story, then they are completely and utterly consumed with the issue of slavery. If your story occurs before 1865, then any black character you have is either a slave or an ardent abolitionist. If it's after 1865, your character is either an impoverished sharecropper, an impoverished city dweller, or a civil rights activist. This goes doubly so if the story happens to take place in the 1960s or 70s.

Third, under no circumstances are you to make the plot feel too "modern". Your story must not include the ideas that people before 1960 had sex outside of marriage or knew what homosexuality was. No one before 1980 knows how to swear. Everyone is polite and self-contained or else they are a "bad influence" and shunned by all good society. No one is jaded and bored about the world, all the new stuff that's just been invented is shocking and revolutionary and no one ever looks at the invention and goes "well, yeah, that makes sense."

If you just repeat these three easy steps then you too can manage to write a period piece that says nothing new about America's past and falls into all the same traps and pitfalls that our writers have been leaping into en masse for the past hundred years or so. Go us.

Okay, I'm not actually in as bad a mood as I probably sound right now, but I am fed up with all of this mishigas because it feels like it's ruining stories I really want to love. Case in point, I just recently finished reading Sons of Liberty, a graphic novel by Alexander and Joseph Lagos with art by Steve Walker (Illustrator) and Oren Kramek (Colorist). As far as I can tell there are two volumes and I only read the first one. But I'm probably not going to pick up the second. Allow me to tell you why.

So the story of Sons of Liberty unfortunately hits just about every trope on this list. It follows a pair of slaves in just pre-revolution America and the plot is sort of a superhero/escaped slave narrative fusion. Our heroes are Graham and Brody, two young boys enslaved on a particularly brutal plantation. When they accidentally hurt the master's son, the boys run away into the woods, attempting to find their way to Benjamin Lay's hideout. Benjamin Lay is a well-known abolitionist in those parts and the boys know that if they can just reach him they'll be safe.

Unfortunately for them, they're hunted by a particularly brutal slavehunter and their former master is a horrible human being who prefers his former slaves dead to escaped. The boys barely get away, only to find themselves running into Ben Franklin's servant. Said servant/slave agrees to help the boys but too much happens and he can't quite get to Franklin before Franklin's son, William, finds them. William Franklin does some horrible terrifying experiments on the boys and somehow gives them superpowers.

Now endowed with the power to fight back against the slaveowners, these two very young boys (well, probably in their very early teens - it's hard to say) have no idea how to handle what has happened to them. Ben Franklin tries to help, but eventually he brings them to Benjamin Lay after all. And it's good he did, because unbeknownst to anyone and just by coincidence, Lay is a master of an obscure form of African martial arts that he learned from a group of Haitian slaves and quickly became a master of.

You know, like you do.

The plot gets a bit muddy from here out, but basically William Franklin ends up making a name for himself as a military commander in the French-Indian War while the boys learn to channel their gifts. Their former slaveowner eventually has Lay killed, which drives the boys into a frenzy, and causes them to seek revenge on their former masters. But it turns out that they don't need to because the good people of the town turn on the plantation, shamed into finally doing the right thing and not consorting with slaveowners. The very moderate "literally this is the least you could do" thing.

I guess the boys eventually become superheroes fighting for American independence, and they do find their way to Philadelphia where they work at a print shop, but that's less clear. I assume that's more what happens in the second book. Mostly I'm focused on the bulk of the plot which centers on two former slaves learning African traditions from an old white man in the woods and hanging out with Benjamin Franklin. Doesn't that just tick all of your historical fiction pet peeve boxes? Or is that just me.

It's hard to say exactly what I object to here. I mean, I really don't have anything against historical fiction dealing with slavery. I think that if a story takes place in the time period of slavery it should probably deal with it in some way shape or form. I get really uncomfortable when stories like this gloss over the issue like it's not a thing. Slavery was a massive part of American history, is a massive part of American history, and frankly a lot of the time I'm pissed the hell off that we don't spend more time thinking about it.

So what gives? Why am I advocating for more stories that deal less with slavery? Am I that internally inconsistent?

Well, no and sort of. While I greatly believe we need more good stories about slavery, that does not mean that the only characters we should see black people appear as in those stories are slaves. In other words, in your story you can both deal complexly with slavery and also have multiple black characters who are not slaves. Hell, you could even have a black character who does not care about slavery and doesn't get why this affects them. That would be very interesting.

By implying that all black characters should be slaves, and that's basically what historical fiction tends to do as a whole, it actually removes a lot of development and agency from those characters. If black characters can only be slaves or abolitionists, then that means that the black experience is much narrower than truth and reality seems to suggest it is. The real problem I have with Brody and Graham in Sons of Liberty being slaves is not that I'm against complex portrayals of slavery, it's that this isn't a particularly complex portrayal of slavery. 

The slaveowners are simplistically evil, harsh, and horrible human beings. All the good white people obviously oppose slavery and are horrified by the idea that they might not. The slaves are all inherently good people who are shackled in bondage, all noble and sad and tragic. The boys are both light and innocent but also cruelly aware of the tragedy of our world...

Basically everyone's character development and entire personality can be described as their role in the story. The slaveowners' personalities and motivations are "being a slaveowner" and "owning slaves." The slaves' personalities are "being a slave" and "wishing they weren't slaves". No one seems to have any real development outside of these factors, which is so frustrating because this story has a really interesting concept and I wish I could see it done better.

Brody and Graham get a tad more development because they're the main characters, but even then I would be hard pressed to tell you more than one fact about them. And, even worse, I have trouble remembering which one the facts belong to. One of them is younger and kind of happy go lucky and the other one is older and wants to go back to Africa. That's...that's about it.

It's frustrating. Narratives like these ultimately do nothing to advance the understanding and education of current generations about slavery because they reduce it down to this very simplistic, easily swallowed pablum. "No good people owned slaves and all good people thought slavery was bad and evil. All slaves were noble and good and just cruelly mistreated. Any slave who escaped could think of nothing but helping others escape or returning to Africa. Eventually the good people convinced the bad people to stop owning slaves and then everything was fine!"

Or not. We know from historical evidence (and lots of it) that many people we would call "good" owned slaves or at least were complicit in the slave trade. Hell, George Washington owned slaves and he might have released them upon his death but that doesn't mean he didn't own slaves. Because he did. He owned other human beings as livestock. That is a historical fact.

A lot of people we historically revere had complicated issues with racism and slavery. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony notoriously refused to support the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments (the ones that gave black men the right to vote and also citizenship) because they felt cheated at women not being included. Their remarks on the subject are, frankly, straight up racist.

And to insist that all slaves were good and noble and tragic is to deny that slaves were human beings just like any other. Statistically speaking, I'm sure some of them were jerks. That doesn't mean they deserved to be slaves, it just means that we need to separate out the idea that being a slave somehow makes one noble and tragic. No. It's horrific but it doesn't make you a better person. That's not how any of this works.

Give me complicated stories about black people in American history. Please! Yes, I'd love a biopic on Frederick Douglass (seriously, how has that not happened yet?), but I also want a movie about Madam C. J. Walker aka Sarah Breedlove, the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. Yes, please, make a movie or television show or comic book about Ida B. Wells, the noted suffragist and civil rights advocate, but let's also have one about Justin Holland, a classical guitarist and noted composer who became Cleveland's first black professional classical musician and music teacher.

I could keep going, but I hope you get the picture. We need more stories in general about who black people have been and what they have accomplished throughout history. Yes, talk about slavery, but also talk about business and art and politics and the whole wealth of human experience. Sons of Liberty isn't bad so much as it is overly simplified, but it burns me that the story could have been so much better.

I mean, for starters, what if they'd replaced Benjamin Lay with an actual black character? That would make it less weird that he's teaching the kids African martial arts. But it would also widen the realm of representation of black people in this story. We need more and better stories, not the same old thing regurgitated again and again.

Historical fiction isn't just about white people, but when we frame the story in such a way that we reduce black people to just characters reacting to slavery, we pretend it is. So, you know, stop that.

This is from J.G. Jones and Mark Waid's amazing Strange Fruit. Read this instead.